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Review: ‘The Warrior’s Way’

It’s Cowboys Vs. Ninjas

Above: South Korean star Jang Dong-gun takes on ninjas and cowboys in "The Warrior's Way."

Next year we'll get "Cowboys vs. Aliens" but for now you can console yourself with cowboys vs. ninjas in "The Warrior's Way" (opening December 3 throughout San Diego).

The bad thing about this time of year for a film critic is that the studios inundate you with somber, Oscar-worthy films most of which are just pretentious crap full of their own self-importance. So it's always nice to get a break from all that seriousness with something as refreshingly mindless and unpretentious as "The Warrior's Way."

When I saw the first trailers for this I had flashbacks to the atrociously bad Korean film "Dragon Wars." The trailer for "The Warrior's Way" promised to serve up a similarly Korean-made, English language film chockfull of CGI. I didn't set my hopes very high but I knew it would be a nice change of pace from Hollywood mush like "All Good Things," "The Next Three Days," and "Love and Other Drugs." After seeing the film, I have to say I was surprised to find that "The Warrior's Way" actually had some charm and style.

Jang Dong-gun in action in "The Warrior's Way."

Laundry Warrior Ltd.

Above: Jang Dong-gun in action in "The Warrior's Way."

The wafer thin story involves a warrior assassin named Yang (Jang Dong-Gun). His clan is involved in a centuries old rivalry with another ninja clan. His mission is to kill all his enemies. But after killing their greatest swordsman, he finds he cannot kill the clan's last surviving member, an adorable little baby (insert proper "aw how cute" reaction here). So he grabs the kid and heads off to the American Badlands to hide out. But his past as well as a few American baddies catch up with him for a climatic shootout/sword fight.

Ninjas descend on the old west in "The Warrior's Way."

Laundry Warrior Ltd.

Above: Ninjas descend on the old west in "The Warrior's Way."

If Sergio Leone ever made an Asian-western video game, this would be it. And I say that with a certain sense of joy. The film is an odd and oddly satisfying mix of cultures, genres and styles. It's Korean made but focuses on Japanese-style ninjas and is set in the American old west. It blends Asian action films with spaghetti western elements and a video game landscape. It combines and rips off so many things your head might spin. And yet first time director Sngmoo Lee manages to pull everything together for a goofy, sometimes action-packed, and often entertaining popcorn movie.

Lee's saving grace is that he endows the film with a sense of humor so it never takes itself too seriously. That's one of the things that hurt the recent "Faster." It took itself so seriously that it killed any sense of fun. It was never able to acknowledge that it was ripping off other films and playing off of (and too often into) genre clichés. Lee's film is not sophisticated enough to be called a pastiche but it gleefully rips off Leone, video games, western formula elements, and more for a wild patchwork of pop culture. It's a similar blend to what Takashi Miike tried in "Sukiyaki Western Django" but Lee's film is far less arty and far more accessible to mainstream audiences.

Danny Huston getting instructions from director Sngmoo Lee on the green screen set of "The Warrior's Way."

Laundry Warrior Ltd.

Above: Danny Huston getting instructions from director Sngmoo Lee on the green screen set of "The Warrior's Way."

The characters in "The Warrior's Way" look like they are trapped in a CGI created video game universe so the whole film has a surreal quality to it. Much of the ninja action looks CGI-ed as well and I wondered if they hired one ninja and then just cut and pasted him repeatedly to create some of the action scenes. But this style of action works fine within this video game-like world. And occasionally the action does sing. As an action junkie, sometimes all an action film has to deliver is one breathtaking action set piece and I'm happy. "The Warrior's Way" delivers one such scene. Yang has a shootout with some cowboys in the hallway of a hotel and it's spectacular! The lights go out and the scene is essentially lit intermittently by the gunfire as Yang elegantly cuts through the cowboys. It's beautiful. I would buy a copy of this film just to watch that scene again and again.

But the film needs more scenes like that. It needs more action and less talk. I joked at Facebook that I look at action films like men look at hookers: I don't pay for conversation. (And forgive the political incorrectness of that statement.) In his spaghetti westerns Sergio Leone can get away with long, slow scenes punctuated by terse dialogue. Lee isn't up to Leone's caliber and his long, slow scenes with minimal dialogue just feel like padding. But I have to give Lee credit for at least having a stylistic vision that he's pursuing and frequently attaining. This is a fantasy film and reality is the furthest thing from Lee's mind. His stylistic choices then make reality the furthest thing from viewers' minds as well so that we'll be open to whatever happens. The film is pretty to look at and the action is played out with a nice mix of speed and elegant slow motion. Lee may not be as good as Leone but he understands what Leone was trying to do in his Italian spaghetti westerns. So Lee makes a nice effort to use music, wide open spaces, pauses in action, visual distortion, and dramatic close ups to make "The Warrior's Way" more fun to watch.

Kate Bosworth and Jang Dong-gun display little chemistry in "The Warrior's Way."

Laundry Warrior Ltd.

Above: Kate Bosworth and Jang Dong-gun display little chemistry in "The Warrior's Way."

Jang, who has done stellar work in such South Korean films as "Nowhere to Hide" and "Tae Guk Gi," is a bit bland here but he knows how to display cat-like grace in action. Plus he cuts the proper cool image on screen. Kate Bosworth (remember her as Lois Lane?) is an odd choice for the female lead. She's skittish, not very appealing, and not very good at the action.

Geoffrey Rush as the town drunk with unexpected skills in "The Warrior's Way."

Laundry Warrior Ltd.

Above: Geoffrey Rush as the town drunk with unexpected skills in "The Warrior's Way."

Lee, however, scores big by casting Geoffrey Rush as a sharp-shooting drunk and Danny Huston as a masked baddie. These guys know how to go at cheesy roles like these. They don't hold back but go after the scenery, chomp it up, and spit it out with gusto. Huston's performance is something of a rehash of what he did in "30 Days of Night" where he played the vampire head honcho. He was the only good thing in that movie. Here at least his performance adds to the fun of a film that's already having a good time. It's especially amusing to see Rush slumming it here after just seeing him doing his "Oscar-worthy" work in "The King's Speech." He and Huston are a hoot and it's fun to see them just enjoy themselves.

"The Warrior's Way" (rated R for strong bloody violence) is by no means a great film but it knows exactly what kind of film it is and is happy to deliver those particular goods. If you are an action junkie like myself, make time for this delightful little film. It kicks occasional ass.

Companion viewing: "Sukiyaki Western Django," "Afro Samurai," "Red Sun," "Yojimbo," "A Fistful of Dollars"

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